Yesterday, I gave a short demonstration and workshop on how to perform in-class group activities. My path to embracing group activities has been…long. As an undergrad, I absolutely despised group work. This was partly due to my stubbornness and partly due, as I’ve come to understand, to poorly executed planning by my old (but dearly valued) instructors. My views on group work shifted significantly when I was trained to teach freshman composition and rhetoric at UCSB and thus I returned to my old seminar yesterday to offer my insights to this year’s new batch of writing instructors.

Slide 1

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The class was comprised of about twenty graduate students who all had some previous teaching experience. To begin, I asked how many of them alreadly included group work as an intergral part of their classroom practices. Less than one-quarter of them raised their hands. This was not surprising, I’ve found many others have had similar negative experiecnes of group work as students as myself. I then turned to giving an outline of the potential benefits and drawbacks of group work [Slide 1]. Ultimately, I’ve come to feel that the negatives associated with group work can be significantly mitigated (except for the extra time it takes to do it) and the benefits can be amplified if the group activities are structured well.

Slide 2

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I spent a significant amount of time discussing the elements of an effective group activity [Slide 2]. Group activities need to be started early and often in the term to establish them as a regular part of class meetings – they should not be treated as a special event nor added to a course halfway through the term when a classroom culture has already been established. Groups should always be kept relatively small so no one can “hide” or easily shy away from conversation. I’ve found that three members per group is fairly optimal (groups with too many people invite “social loafing”).

Ideally, activities should be oriented around open-ended questions that require creativity or discussion/argumentation among the memebers. The questions the students are addressing should be clear (written on a slide or board) and the time limits should be strict. I always prefer to keep the timing tight, giving students only 3-5 minutes to complete most tasks (the tasks are often not very complex). I feel this creates an energy and motivation to work quickly and effectively.  Importantly, the goups should always need to produce a “deliverable” – either shairing their ideas verbally with the class, handing in an assignment, or posting on our course website. To facilitate this, I will always ask that someone operates as a scribe to take notes for the group. When the activity allows for it, I will provide separate roles for each member, with the “skeptic” being the most interesting for some students. Their duty is to offer disagrements (ideally, counterarguments) whenever possible, to halt any chance of “group think.” Finally, I often allow a minute or two of off-task time before or after an activity to let the students get to know each other and build classroom camaraderie.

Slide 3

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Since this short commtarial lecture was for a class of new writing instructors, I provided them with instructions of how a group activity built for them might look [Slide 3]. Note the question was simple and direct and I provided some examples to stimulate ideas. In addition, there was a clear expectation that the response needed to be written down and there was a clear (short) time limit.

I spent the rest of my class time talking about processes – namely, writing, researching, and reading – which I will return to in a later post.

*This is part of a series of posts reflecting on my experiences offering workshops on university pedagogy. Please contact me directly if you want full versions of my slides pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu.

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